Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe honored at Memorial Day in Nova Scotia
A Mi’kmaw poet will be remembered for her writings, which spotlighted the enduring effects of Canada’s boarding school system.
This year’s Heritage Day in Nova Scotia pays tribute to Rita Joe.
The late Cape Breton was born in Whycocomagh, NS in 1932 and later moved to Eskasoni First Nation.
Throughout her life, Joe wrote compelling stories about the history of boarding schools and Mi’kmaq identity.
Friends, family and scholars say Joe was a trailblazer speaking about the loss of indigenous languages and traditions.
“She first started writing a column for the Micmac News, and then she started writing poetry and she started recording,” said Ann Joe, Rita Joe’s youngest daughter. “She went to the elders and recorded legends and stories and it was like she was trying to shine a spotlight on our culture and uplift our culture.
“When it started in the ’70s, there wasn’t a lot of positive representation of us out there. We were getting killed on TV and in the westerns and they were still dealing with the aftermath of boarding school. It was nice in a sad time.”
learn your language again
Rita Joe endured a difficult childhood, including the loss of both parents. She spent time in foster families.
Like many Indigenous children, Joe was banned from speaking her native language at the Shubenacadie residential school she was forced to attend. When she finished her schooling, she had to relearn her language by speaking to people who spoke Mi’kmaw.
In 1978 she published her first collection of poetry, wrote six more books, and received many honors, including recognition as Poet Laureate of the Mi’kmaq.
Her rise to fame peaked in the late 1980s with the release of I lost my conversationa poem reflecting her experiences with the Shubenacadie residential school and losing her mother tongue.
“One of the things my mom used to say was… ‘I wanted to lift up the sad eyes of my people and show them that their culture is beautiful, that they’re worth celebrating, all those things.’
“Even if you look at the poem, I lost my conversation. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved. And it was like she was trying to find a way to… reach out to the majority, but she did it in a very forgiving way. She wasn’t angry. It wasn’t militant, it wasn’t confrontational.”
Gordon E. Smith, Professor of Ethnomusicology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, worked with Rita Joe for 15 years, beginning in the early 1990s when he was asked to create sheet music for her poetry.
Joe was eventually appointed to the Order of Canada in 1989 and made a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada in 1992.
He said Joe always emphasized the positive. “She really felt … the only way Mi’kmaw people, indigenous peoples, would come to a point of healing and reconciliation was to focus on the good in life, the good in people.”
An artist who grew up in Truro, NS is now doing her part to elevate Joe’s message and story.
Alex Beals, who lives in Toronto, has designed a $20 bill that features Joe along with floral Mi’kmaw beads in the background.
Beals’ work was commissioned by the Native Women’s Association of Canada as part of an initiative called Change the Bill.
call to action
The artwork project is a call to action that shows what Canadian money would look like if Indigenous women were better represented in mainstream media.
“I really want people to see how important representation is and how important Rita is too, and understand her journey and her story,” Beals said. “I just feel like putting such a strong woman on the bill is very important.”
Beals said she chose Joe as the inspiration for the bill because it recaptured and celebrated her culture.
To date, Canada has not depicted an indigenous woman on any of its banknotes.
Ann Joe said her family would love to see her mother and grandmother on a bill, in addition to being recognized as part of a provincial holiday.
“That would be something,” said Ann Joe. “I have to see it to believe it, but at this pace, anything is possible.”
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